Sometimes a film comes along that just knocks me out with its filmmaking, but never quite comes across on an emotional level. Paul Thomas Anderson films have that way about them and his latest, Phantom Thread, falls directly into that category. It is a meticulously made film in every possible way. It is gorgeously designed and stunning to look at. The script is a puzzle where every piece falls into place exactly when Anderson wants them to and the acting is exquisite. But there is something about the story and the characters that just didn’t quite connect with me. Yet, it is a film I want to return to. I want to study it and bask in its craft.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned fashion designer in 1950s London. He is an exacting man, obsessed with the minutest details of his art. In an early scene, we see him at breakfast with his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) and his lover. He pays no attention to either of them and the girl becomes agitated, demanding some sort of affection. This only causes great anger in Reynolds, and later, Cyril gets rid of her. We suspect this is not his first, nor will it be his last, lover/muse.
After a successful design for a client, he takes a day off and goes to the country. There, he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and they have the kind of moment people only have in the movies. She stares longingly at him and trips over her feet. They share a smile, and we know they are destined for romance. She moves into his large house. He dresses her in beautiful clothes. She is impressed by his genius. Once again, he loses himself in his work. He pays little attention to her. He becomes angry when she interrupts him or spreads her butter on toast too loudly. Like all the girls before her, she is dismayed by his actions. Unlike those other girls, she has her own strength.
One night when a boorish woman wearing his dress passes out at a party, Alma angrily tells Reynolds she doesn’t deserve to wear his dress. Later, they go to her place and demand she give it back. When the maid announced that the lady is asleep, Alma marches into her room and takes it off of her. He is impressed. He is turned on. He is in love.
But soon the old patterns returns. It becomes a battle of wills. Each person is determined that the other should care for them in their own way. I won’t spoil the extremes to which she goes to bend his will to hers, but it did manage to completely surprise me at nearly every turn.
The film runs like a perfectly crafted watch. The script is cut from a pattern made from Hitchock’s Rebecca but sewn tightly in P.T. Anderson’s own distinctive way. I was completely won over by his craftsmanship and artistry. Daniel Day-Lewis is always good and he’s terrific here. This role is not as showy as Lincoln or his other collaboration with Anderson, There Will Be Blood, but it's just as good. It is a sly, subtle performance. Leslie Manville is tremendous as the sister who is supportive of Reynolds' art, but can also be just as biting. Vicky Krieps, an actress from Luxembourg, is so good as Alma. You never really know what she’s going to do next and the performance is sublime.
And yet the story never quite connects for me. The characters are all closed off, they keep their emotions so close to the vest it is difficult to empathize with any of them. The cruelties they lay across one another are at times difficult to watch. I suspect upon repeat viewings (and I do so very much want to watch it again) this critique will lessen and my familiarity with the story will allow me to see how incredibly made it is.
The audio/video quality is nearly as superbly presented as the film itself. The image quality is pristine, precise, and beautiful. Dialogue comes in clear and Johnny Greenwood's strange piano-based score fills each scene but is never overbearing. The foley is astoundingly well done. Just watch that breakfast scene when Alma spreads the butter on her toast. The scraping sound is louder than some gunshots I’ve heard in movies.
Extras includes Paul Thomas Anderson walking you through the various film stocks he used, deleted scenes, a fashion show of the various dresses made for the film, and behind-the-scenes photos accompanied by demo versions of the score.
Phantom Thread is an impeccably made, sometimes difficult, and not entirely emotionally satisfying film by a master artist.